What have you made of the legal profession in your first month?
The sector is very interesting. Obviously there’s a ton going on with various market segments with their own contextual problems. It’s very similar to the medical sector in many ways – historical, architectural and professional standards are kept and the regulator strikes the bad guys off. What is different is the context of a business environment and the idea of a compensation and redress system which is not part of my history.
And what about the SRA itself?
Lots of transferable issues and skills but in an organisation with bright, enthusiastic and energetic people. They really want to do the right thing. There is an old adage that 10 people have a good experience and one person doesn’t, but that one person will tell 10 others. Anyone who engages with faceless bureaucrats will not think much of them. But when you have an active engagement which is credible, even if you don’t agree, people have a different and positive perspective.
The real challenge is how you differentiate the macro from the micro.
Does it matter if the SRA is not liked by members of the profession?
We interact in contention with people which is always going to be negative. But people using the contact centre or the ethics helpline – what do they think and how can we enhance the reputation of the organisation?
It is in the wider public and of the profession's interest that the regulated profession is credible. In that sense I would hope to be working with the profession in the public interest. I don’t think they are mutually exclusive. The standing of the profession is in the public interest as an access-to-justice point.
Is the financial stability of firms the biggest issue you face?
Financial stability is a big issue. The real discussion is if the consumer interest is served at the moment. And what else is in the public interest? Are we achieving the Legal Services Act objectives of ethics and the right direction of travel?
I agree with risk-based regulation. You try to take pro-active action to address it. I have yet to find a professional that disagrees with the principles of regulation but I have found lots who disagreed with the way it’s interpreted.
Is enforcement more of a priority this year than supervision?
I want to start the discussion of what it means to be a professional and a solicitor. The SRA would be a better organisation if we did more of that. The idea of supervision is building a relationship with the firm and assess its risk. Once you’ve identified that you move into more pro-active work. These are ongoing pieces of work and it’s wrong to stop them in their tracks. From a personal perspective it goes hand in hand in engagement with the profession and what it means to be a solicitor.
Does the ABS application process need to change?
We need to improve the way we deal with licence applications. We’re getting new business structures with different forms of ownership which are a bit exotic for us. We need to see how they measure up and make sure we’re proportionate. There is no point me waxing lyrical about standards and ethics if we are not delivering services as well as we could, which has been the case in the past.
Was it right to request financial information from 2,000 firms last year?
We’re a risk-based regulator and it’s all about making sure you’re pro-active. In principle it is a laudable way of working. But getting to the execution and whether it was right to write to firms, yes we identified quite a lot of consumer protection issues and a number of firms that were intervened but we wrote to lots of firms who showed they were viable businesses. We have to manage our engagement and reflect on what we learnt from what went well and badly. Are we going to do it again? We’ll be discussing it.
Is the burden of regulation too great for solicitors?
There is a burden. The question is whether it’s proportionate. I want to review the model of regulation. I want to look at whether the one-size fits all approach is right and proportionate. I’m not 100% convinced it is. I want to look at the amounts of information the organisation asks for from firms and individuals and ask honest questions about whether it is too bureaucratic and what we do with the information we have.
It’s certainly something we should look at. What are the levels and what is the financial burden? How much does it impose on smaller firms and how much risk does that pose to consumer protection?
What about the government’s review of regulation? Should the regulator be independent of the representative body?
The SRA response was well considered. Self-regulation is most definitely dead – there is an inherent conflict between representative bodies and regulators working in the public interest. But that is not to say we could not work closer together to achieve the aspiration of working with the profession. My rhetoric is working with the profession and we should be doing that.
The Law Society is in a great position to help us do that. We can work closer together. I know there have been tensions in the past because both organisations have a different purpose. But the standing of the profession is in the public interest.
Are there parallels with the medical sector?
In the medical profession there have been 156 years of separate regulation. The representative body is the BMA and it’s still very powerful. Although regulation is independent the idea we could ignore the views of the people we regulated was a misnomer. We engaged very heavily with the BMA and I wanted to understand their views. They had some pointed views for me. The analogy with the Law Society is a good one. People feel strongly and have particular views.
Is there an issue with people’s attitude to change?
I have yet to find anybody who genuinely likes change. I dealt with a huge scale of change in my last job and the politics that go with it. There is no way through it but through it. We have to involve people and talk to people.
Once you do that you can stand and fall on your personal integrity and credibility. That is why the organisation needs to be more outward focused and engage with the profession. Not everybody will like it but I would hope over a period of time we will have more credibility.